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Biofuels Center Opens New Oxford Campus

By Jeremy Summers, NCBiotech Writer

The biofuels industry has potential solutions for some of society’s biggest problems, including high gas prices and sustainable energy.

But being a new industry has its challenges, particularly since biofuels are based on new and evolving technologies. Farmers and companies looking to take a product from idea to commercialization may find this to be a difficult process, since few have gone before them.

With the opening of the new Biofuels Campus in Oxford, the Biofuels Center of North Carolina aims to improve that process and tap into the state’s potential as a leader in the biofuels industry.

Steven Burke, Tom Vilsack at Biofuels Center Campus opening.

The new campus, complete with a company accelerator and biodiesel plant, opened last week. According to W. Steven Burke, president and CEO of the Center, it is now the “nation’s only comprehensive agency for biofuels development.”

“It is the task of this center to put it all together to change our future and our society,” said Burke.

Site taps into N.C.’s potential

North Carolina has historically led the way in many new and emerging industries, including biotechnology.

The state is uniquely poised to become a leader in the biofuels industry. North Carolina already produces many biofuel crops, including corn and soybeans. But the Biofuels Center is focused on non-food biomass components such as specialized crops and animal and wood waste. Additionally, it has the infrastructure and logistics in place to support the industry.

The Biofuels Campus will help in development of products and technologies for this industry, which will keep jobs and money in the state and not overseas, where production of biofuels is already underway.

Novozymes, a biotech company involved in biofuels, has its North American headquarters in Franklinton. Adam Monroe, president and CEO of Novozymes North America, explained that the company’s $500 million in assets and 500 employees in Franklinton is part of a commitment to the growth of the biofuels industry in the state.

The biofuels industry has “turned into big business, but it hasn’t become as big everywhere that it can,” said Monroe. “North Carolina has huge potential.”

U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield, of North Carolina’s first Congressional district, explained that the biofuels industry “represents the opportunity for an economic windfall for our state.”

Butterfield said the crops that will drive the biofuels industry will come from farmers across the state, which will “put rural America back on the map.”

The Biofuels Campus is conducting research looking for alternatives to petroleum based fuels not just to curb increasing gas prices, but also to reduce the state’s dependence on imported petroleum.

“High fuel prices are burdening families. The need for change is obvious,” said Butterfield, adding that the center will be a “conduit for solutions to catalyze the green revolution.”

Also on hand for the event was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“What’s unique about this center, and North Carolina, is that you’re bringing all the parties together,” said Vilsack. He said the agricultural diversity across North Carolina has created a supply chain that engages all parts of the state.

The creation of new products, he said, will put people back to work and create jobs and wealth — something President Barack Obama refers to as an “economy built to last,” he said.

“I have confidence in this state to move us to a better future,” added Vilsack.

Biofuels Company Accelerator part of campus

Lab space included in Biofuels Campus company accelerator.  

The Biofuels Campus houses the Biofuels Company Accelerator, which is designed to offer affordable laboratory access and office space for companies or individuals associated with the industry.

The Biofuels Company Accelerator is housed on the second floor of the Center’s headquarters building, which had to be upfitted for lab equipment. Funding for the renovation came from both state and federal sources, including a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, secured by Congressman Butterfield.

The space consists of 10 offices and eight labs. The Biofuels Center offers this space at low lease rates to keep costs down for new companies. The idea is to house a startup company for up to three years, in which time the company accelerator should prepare them to graduate to their own facilities.

The accelerator can also house short-term tenants, so local farmers or companies can perform necessary tests near the farms where the crops are grown, saving time and money in the evaluation process.

Tenants also have access to business-development support from the Biofuels Center and other agencies – support that is often a crucial resource for success. 

Biofuels plan includes biodiesel plant

The Biofuels Campus also opened a small-scale, non-commercial biodiesel plant which can produce up to 35,000 gallons of biodiesel a year.

The plant is capable of converting virgin or recycled fats and oils into high-quality biodiesel. The facility has 15,000 gallons of storage capacity in a 1,200-square-foot tank farm.

Among the first output of the plant will be fuel for state agricultural vehicles, which will be made from cooking grease used at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh.

The conversion process takes about 3 hours to produce a reaction, once the recycled materials are secured in the tanks. There is then a process of cleaning and moisture removal that takes about 10 hours.

While the plant is not equipped for the scale that would be necessary for commercial use, the biodiesel produced is used to power the equipment on the Biofuels Campus. Additionally, the facility will serve as an educational resource to farmers and the public.

Biofuels Center now in its fifth year

The Biofuels Center was established in 2007 by a consortium keyed from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. It’s a private, non-profit corporation funded permanently by the North Carolina General Assembly.

It is charged with “charting North Carolina's path over years to gain large capacity for alternatives to petroleum-based liquid fuels.”

The Center is on a 10-year plan, over which time it aims to become the nation’s only large-acreage site for biofuels trial-growing, company incubation and partnerships, research and demonstration facilities, and public education.